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Republicans want to elect more women to Congress. They failed their first test in NC.

A historic day for women as 116th Congress is sworn in

The 116th Congress welcomed more than 100 women, a first in US history.
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The 116th Congress welcomed more than 100 women, a first in US history.

Congressional Republicans are increasingly fretting about the massive gender gap in their ranks after a GOP woman failed to advance in a North Carolina House election this week, prompting concerns that the party could lose its “capacity to govern.”

Even though she was backed by every GOP woman in the U.S. House and other prominent national Republicans, Joan Perry lost a primary runoff special election in North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district by nearly 20 points to state Rep. Greg Murphy on Tuesday.

The result put into sharp focus the struggles Republican women across the nation have had winning House elections, even as the GOP has made recruiting more female candidates a higher priority. There are currently just 13 Republican women serving in the House — the lowest total since 1995 — compared to 184 men.

That gender imbalance has Republicans, who lost control of the House in 2018 due in large part to the success of Democratic women candidates, worried about the party’s stability.

“It’s hard for us get fewer,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a former member of party leadership. “The Republican Party is a conservative party. The Republican Party needs to remain a conservative party, but look more like America. And if we do not, we won’t have the capacity to govern, and if we don’t have the capacity to govern, then we’re just about ideas without any practical way to implement them.”

In response, Republicans are pledging to more more resources into electing women in the 2020 cycle. Winning For Women, a super PAC that supports conservative female candidate that spent nearly $1 million on Perry’s behalf, has set a goal of boosting the number of GOP women in the House to 20.

“This race is exactly why we are needed more than ever,” said Rebecca Schuller, executive director of Winning For Women, in a statement. “We’re not stopping here, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to get more women in the House in 2020.”

The Democrats’ ability to elect 89 women to the House has only further highlighted the GOP’s failure to close its gender gap.

“Every time we have an event, a whole bunch of Democratic ladies show up, and I have to try to get as many Republicans as possible,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, Republican co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus. Lesko, the only woman in the Freedom Caucus, supported Perry in the runoff. “I’ll continue to try to recruit and support good Republican women. We need more Republican women in our caucus.”

There were 22 GOP women in the House after the 2016 election, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. However, several prominent suburban GOP women lost their seats in 2018, including Barbara Comstock in Virginia, Mia Love in Utah and Karen Handel in Georgia.

In 2020, Republicans are looking to run women candidates both in battleground districts that will determine control of the House as well as safe seats like North Carolina’s 3rd district. Those are the type of seats Republicans can hold for decades, allowing them to move up the ranks of party and committee leadership.

“They’re trying to recruit women in solid Republican districts now. Before it seemed to be a focus on just swing districts,” Lesko said. “Well, you can lose.”

After Perry’s loss, Republican women are setting their sights elsewhere.

There are no women among Kentucky’s five-member Republican congressional delegation. Republicans in Washington, D.C. are reportedly encouraging Kentucky GOP state Rep. Kim Moser, to challenge incumbent Rep. Thomas Massie. But the conservative Club for Growth has taken issue with the move, conducting its own poll that shows Massie with a huge lead over Moser.

In South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, a former GOP stronghold that Democrat Joe Cunningam flipped in 2018, two Republican women — Nancy Mace and Kathy Landing — are running. Mace, a state representative, spoke with Winning For Women and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who has made recruiting more GOP women one of her top priorities, before entering the race.

Mace and Landing are not alone. Nearly 50 non-incumbent Republican women are running for House seats in 2020 as of now, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

“We would all love to have more diversity in our conference,” said Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican. “But at the same time, you have to respect the voters and we certainly don’t want to discriminate against the men.”

Comer said Republicans need more women, Hispanics and African-Americans in the party.

“At the same time, we’re going to do our best to represent America, we recognize America’s diverse and for whatever reason we’re comprised mostly of men,” Comer said. “It’s not the fault of leadership or anyone out recruiting, because we all recognize it would be better to have more women members.”

In the U.S. Senate, there are eight Republican women and 17 Democratic women. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who backed Perry in North Carolina, said that the party is losing out by not having more women in its ranks.

“Women can bring a very different perspective. We think about things in a different manner and the way we approach it,” Ernst said. “Here in the Senate, I find the women work quite well together and there’s very little ego involved in that, whereas the men might be arm wrestling over who gets to be the lead sponsor of a bill.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, one of the longest-serving women in the House, said she’d like to see representation from different walks of life, including more women.

“Women do make up 53% of the population of the country,” she said.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
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